Israel warned Wednesday that its offensive in the Gaza Strip would intensify in coming days as rockets launched by Hamas militants penetrated deeper than ever into the Jewish state and Israeli airstrikes killed more than two dozen people in the seaside Palestinian enclave.
Neither side appeared willing to back down or heed appeals for calm, with Israeli officials vowing to cripple Hamas' military capabilities in Gaza — possibly through a forceful ground incursion — and the extremist group's leader blaming Israel for destroying Palestinian homes and wantonly killing civilians.
The secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council. A statement from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi's office said intensive efforts were underway to broker an end to the deadliest outbreak of violence between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel since November 2012. Then, Egypt's intervention led to a cease-fire that had held relatively well until recent days.
But whether Cairo can exert the same influence now is unclear. Sisi's administration is cool toward Hamas and has shut down tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt into Gaza. Sisi's predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and boasted closer ties with the hard-line Hamas, which denies Israel's right to exist.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he had spoken with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as Sisi and other Arab leaders to urge them to pressure Israel to stop its offensive in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu countered with his own calls to Ban, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to explain that his government was responding to an intolerable situation of attacks on Israel's civilian population.
Rockets rained down on parts of Israel throughout the day Wednesday, sending residents scrambling for cover in communities dozens of miles away, including Tel Aviv. More than 200 rockets launched by Hamas and other militant groups such as Islamic Jihad hit Israel in less than 48 hours, military officials said.
Hamas said it launched a rocket at Haifa, nearly 90 miles north of Gaza. Although the rocket fell slightly short of the coastal city, the attempt demonstrated the significantly expanded reach of the group's armory.
Seven rockets also targeted Dimona — not as distant as Haifa, but home to Israel's nuclear reactor. Three of the rockets were neutralized by Israel's missile-defense system, known as Iron Dome; four landed in open areas.
So far, there have been no reports of Israeli fatalities or serious injuries from the rocket fire.
In Gaza, families mourned about 30 people killed by Israel's aerial bombardment Wednesday, which brought the total number of dead to at least 55 since the military commenced its operation early Tuesday, according to medical sources in Gaza. They said Wednesday's victims included at least four children: two brothers, 11 and 13; a 4-year-old boy; and a 14-year-old boy. Also killed were five men who were sitting in a beachside cafe watching the World Cup, Palestinian sources said.
The airstrikes on Gaza targeted weapons caches, command centers, smuggling tunnels, homes of suspected militants and the suspected militants themselves. Smoke billowed into the sky from damaged and demolished buildings.
"We have decided to further increase the assault on Hamas and the terrorist organizations in Gaza," Netanyahu said, after consultations with military officials Wednesday afternoon. "Our military is strong, the home front is steadfast and our people are united. This combination is our response to the terrorist organizations that want to attack us."
By Wednesday afternoon, Israel's air campaign had struck 550 targets across the Gaza Strip, including 60 rocket-launching sites and 31 tunnels, the military said.
The Israeli government is also mobilizing up to 40,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground incursion into Gaza, an operation that would probably have to last for days to be effective in rooting out militants and hidden weapons stockpiles.
So far, the call-up of the reservists has been selective, drafting troops for headquarters, aerial defense and home-front assignments. Some of the reservists will relieve troops stationed in the West Bank to free them up to take positions around Gaza or for a ground operation, a military official said.
"The battle against Hamas will become wider in coming days. It won't be a short campaign, and we should be patient," Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.
"Over the last few years, Hamas has built up in Gaza a very formidable terrorist military machine, and we are now acting to dismantle that machine," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told Sky News. "Over the last two, three weeks, there have been messages sent to Hamas: Stop the rocket fire, that quiet will be met by quiet…. Hamas did not heed our warnings."
The militants are believed to possess hundreds of longer-range rockets, which represent a significant advance in their capabilities.
Analysts say that Hamas, abetted by Egypt's previous government, upgraded its arsenal after Israel's military operation in Gaza in 2012. Now that the Muslim Brotherhood has been ousted from power in Cairo, Hamas will probably find it harder to replenish its stocks.
Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said a rocket that on Tuesday struck the town of Hadera, more than 70 miles from Gaza, was an M-302, similar to those found on a ship intercepted in the Red Sea by the Israeli navy in March. About 40 such rockets, each with a range of up to nearly 100 miles, were recovered from the ship, which Israel says was destined for the Gaza Strip.
"We said back then that this was a game-changer," Lerner said.
In an interview on Qatari television, Khaled Meshaal, leader of Hamas, called Israel the aggressor because of its occupation of Palestinian lands, its demolition of homes belonging to the families of suspected militants and its killing of innocent civilians.
"We did not ask for this war. It was forced upon us," Meshaal said, adding: "Many from the East and West have called us calling for calm with the occupation and to stop firing the rockets.... We will do what we have to do to defend ourselves and our people and to live in dignity, even if we have to do it alone."
The sharp increase in armed hostilities follows the kidnapping and killing last month of three Israeli teenagers, which Israel blames on Hamas, and the killing of a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem last week by suspected Jewish extremists, apparently in revenge.
Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer Chu from London. Special correspondents Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza and Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.
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